“Just a few seconds can be a complete or a breakthrough in terms of where consumers decide to order from,” said Amanda Topper, a research director at research firm Mintel. The data was obtained from SeeLevelHX, which tracks drive-throughs at about 1,500 US restaurants across 10 major chains between July 5 and August 6.
So far, the routine has stuck. A Technomic consumer survey found that about 52% of quick-serve restaurant orders were placed in swaths in August 2021, compared with about 42% in January 2020.
In the highly competitive fast food market, increased demand through any channel is a win. Restaurants don’t want to lose ground by giving up any potential sales, but they also can’t overwhelm their systems and risk losing customers.
To solve that problem, fast food chains are pursuing many solutions, many of which are more: more lanes, more pick-up options and more technology.
How the drive-thrus got bogged down
And the pandemic’s push to drive-through, delivery and pickup has created a cycle: With workers scrambling to fill those unavailable orders, customers outside in restaurants can become frustrated – and switch to driving instead.
“You’re sitting there waiting in line, and while all the drive-in orders are filling, the takeout orders are filling,” says Henkes. Until labor conditions ease, restaurants are “redirecting their resources to where they will be most productive. For many quick-service restaurants, that’s driving force.”
Some restaurants with multiple employees are choosing to close their dining rooms altogether. But even as they add more employees to their driver staff, that channel will be under enormous pressure.
Meanwhile, there was even a challenge the restaurant staff managed to maintain. Uncertainty in the industry means increased revenue, which means fewer experienced workers. “If you have an employee who has been with you for a year, they are much more productive… than the person you hired three weeks ago,” said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst at BTIG.
Larger orders, another pandemic trend, only exacerbate the situation, Saleh noted. Some restaurant chains say that while traffic may have slowed during the crisis, the average check size has increased. That’s partly due to rising prices, but also because people have placed larger orders for families or groups to eat together at home.
Pre-order, dual lane and artificial intelligence
It is unclear when, or even if, the workforce for restaurants will increase. So restaurants are turning to other solutions.
However, fast food has always been about convenience, so taking it a step further may not appeal to all diners. So some thread is relying on the drive.
CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts during an October call that McDonald’s has been testing automated ordering at some of its US stores. These efforts, he said, “have shown significant benefits to customers and the crew experience.” McDonald’s driving times in major markets have shortened by an average of 30 seconds over the past two years, according to the company.